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Three cheers for the dictator?

  • Published at 08:42 pm March 27th, 2017
Three cheers for the dictator?

Just a few days ago, while going past the TSC area within the campus, noticed a hullabaloo around the open space behind the DAS canteen. It seemed some congregation was taking place. Large flower bouquet-carrying teenagers jostled to get in front.

Later, someone told me that the birthday of a certain politician, who ruled the country from 1982 till his fall in 1990, was being celebrated. Of course, nothing is wrong in making such a day special.  When one lives on to a ripe old age, and in relatively solid health, that person deserves kudos but since I was here in the same spot during the highly turbulent days of the late 80s, the total contrast in scenario seemed a little unnerving.

Going back to the 80s, the country, run by an army person turned ruler, was caught in a socio-political quagmire. There was unrest everywhere. Both the major political parties, BNP and AL, joined hands, if not publicly, then at least through their relentless non-cooperation and strikes to bring down the regime.

Leaders of both the parties gave a joint statement in 1987, expressing their strong commitment to the successful culmination of the struggles.

If I am not mistaken, those born after 1990, formed the majority of the crowd present last week at the TSC party to take part in the extravaganza, and are most probably unaware of what took place in Bangladeshi politics between 82-90.

These young students possibly haven’t heard of the term “session jam” or “double session jam.” With student politics banned and classes suspended at regular intervals, the major universities at that time hardly managed to finish their academic sessions on time.

Consequently, an unemployed, disillusioned student in his late 20s was a common sight back then. This was also the era when the mass exodus of students from Bangladesh began, because, with session jams a regular thing, no student could hope to finish on time and enter the job market.

Henceforth, the rise of TOEFL’s (Test of English as a Foreign Language) popularity. Seeing the celebration, images of a forgotten era came back like a wave -- a curfew was imposed after dark with the police given the order to shoot any violator.

During the height of the anti-autocracy movement, one afternoon, skirmishes from the university reached the Bata signal area of Elephant Road. At one stage, the police were replaced by paramilitary, carrying heavy weapons.

Looking at the approach of the force, with automatic weapons aimed forward from a wall crevice, I felt a shiver. That moment is vivid in my mind just like the death of a chicken seller at Hatirpool who took a bullet and died on the spot.

A renowned artist created a stir when he made a sketch titled “Desh aaj bishwo behayar khoppore” (country is at the hands of a champion of shamelessness).

I have seen the height of revolution in Bangladesh and also the total turnaround in sentiment

Like many dictators before him, who fell eventually in the face of mass uprising, the regime finally crumbled on December 6, 1990.

To many, that day may be forgotten, though I still recall almost every detail. Just after the fall, millions came out on the streets at around midnight, rejoicing, cheering, banging kitchen utensils with large spoons.

Car honking was rare since vehicle ownership was still not within the grasp of the middle class 27 years ago.

All night, the roads were abuzz with activity. The next day was a national holiday; BTV went on entertainment mode, showing films all day long.

I remember watching Duel in the Sun (Gregory Peck in a villainous role) in the afternoon and then, going to the Gulisthan second hand market to buy a pair of jeans.

For us, it was a day made in heaven. In most houses, special food was prepared, polao and rezala, to mark a momentous event in history.

Was it a day of deliverance? Maybe today’s young should ask those who experienced that watershed event.

Around the city, the undying slogan Shoirachar Nipat Jaak, Gonotonrtro Mukti Paak (Autocracy be damned, let democracy be free), a slogan written on the body of one Nur Hossain, killed during protests, reverberated with renowned vigour.

How many present at that celebration have heard of Nur Hossain, a scooter driver and an AL youth front activist?

But then, politics is not about what is morally correct and what is not. It’s often about compromises, with the moral dimension sliced off for convenience.

I have seen the height of revolution in Bangladesh and also the total turnaround in sentiment. When one sees vices of the past plus ruthless suppression swept aside for frivolities coated with facetiousness, one is compelled to pause and think about the evolution of politics.

There is of course a lesson here for all of us: In politics, friends and foes exchange places faster than you can define ethics -- and that is what we have to accept.

Saw one celebration in 1990 and the other barely five days ago.

Bertrand Russell came to mind: “Politics is largely about sententious platitudes devoid of any truth.”

Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.